I was ecstatic. I yelled, and pumped my fist in the air, shattering the seal of
warmthI had worked so hard to maintain. It was 6:45 in the morning, and as I took one
ofmy last lift rides up the ski hill, the first rays of sunlight managed to sneak through the
trees; a sign that my grueling ordeal was finally coming to an end.
For the past 23 hours I had been skiing non-stop at the Greek Peak 24-hour,
“Hope on the Slopes” Ski-a-thon. The event’s main purpose was to raise money and
awareness for cancer research. However, my main purpose was to be named the 24-hour
In a ski-a-thon, the champion is whoever logs the most ‘vertical feet’ in 24
straight hours of skiing. I was prepared for the event, physically. With more than a
decade of downhill racing experience, and fresh off my most recent exploit –a 100 mile
run around Cayuga Lake in two days carrying all my supplies on my back –I came into
the Greek Peak Ski-a-thon a bit overconfident. I’d checked things out. Sure, there were
a few contenders, but it seemed like most of the participants weren’t there for the same
reason I was.
The morning of the competition was beautiful. Blue skies, sunshine, and fresh
snow made for what I thought would be the perfect dayofskiing. As gray clouds moved
in and the temperature dropped, my optimism began to dissolve. It ended up raining all
daylong. The temperature plummeted after sunset, causing my clothes to freeze to my
So, I skied. I skied until I fell asleep on the chairlift. I skied until I ran out of
food. I skied beyond exhaustion, until I was simply an endurance machine. It was only
the arrival of daylight that recharged me, signaling that the event was almost over. Then,
after 24 hours of solidskiing, I stumbled into the base lodge and promptly fell asleep,
withmy ski boots as a pillow.
Outside, at the award ceremony a few hours later, I had my old confidence back.
I was pretty sure I’d won the prize for ‘most vertical feet skied’ and was feeling good
about it. I looked around at the small crowd huddling to stay warm in the coldmorning
air. I had to admit, the folks still here were pretty enthusiastic about raising money for
cancer, but none of them had done what I’d just done. I was practically bouncing with
The ceremony started off with the Star-Spangled Banner. Hats came off, and I
noticed several bald heads that had been hiding under those knit caps. Awards came
next. There was an award for the team that had raised the most money –thousands of
dollars. Someone from that team spoke about a co-worker that was undergoing
chemotherapy and radiation treatment. They brought him up; he was one of the bald
folks. He pumped both fists into the air and everyone cheered. There was an award for
the individual that had raised the most money. She spoke about her brother’s battle with
cancer;about his strength and his dignity in the face of death. There were more cheers
and applause as she stepped down. Then it was time for the award I had come to claim.
Suddenly, I wasn’t bouncing with pride anymore. In fact, as I accepted my
award, I felt like a complete loser. I could say that I was suddenly overcome by a wave
ofaltruism, and donated my winnings to cancer research… but that would be a lie.
Instead, in a daze, I accepted my prize money and retreated to a picnic table to wallow in
self disgust. All of a sudden, the 300 dollars in my pocket felt like a stamp of arrogance,
and the worst part was that nobody else could see it. People were genuinely happy for
me. One man, in his seventies, whom Iremembered passing severaltimes throughout the
night, congratulated me on my victory. He told me through tears about his sister who
was battling cervical cancer, and had a month to live. If everybody were as generous as
the people here, he said, his sister might live to see her eighties. After a handshake, I
gathered my equipment and slowly walked back to the car.
Driving home, I finally had a chance to sort things out. Keeping the money
wasn’t bad, necessarily. I was an endurance athlete and had signed up to compete. I’d
earned the award through skill and perseverance. Yet these people had undergone
chemotherapy and radiation. They had watched loved ones die, had their hairfall out,
lost their jobs, and even their families in some cases. I had won the event, yet the people
back there –the victims and the survivors of cancer –theywere the real champions.
Something clicked then. I truly realized that there are heroes and champions everywhere,
living their lives, and fighting their battles, without medals or prizes. They don’t sign
up, but theydo it quietly, every day.
To me, endurance isn’t about competition and prizes anymore. It’s about treating
each new day as an opportunityto live, with grace and a little more humility.
It feels good to be in a world of quiet heroes and champions.